February 28th, 2013
09:58 PM ET

What the "Harlem shake" has to do with Harlem

By Raelyn Johnson and Alicia W. Stewart, CNN

(CNN) - It begins rather innocently.

An infectious track, a conservative, solo dancer and a few oblivious observers.

A mere fifteen seconds of pelvic thrusts, then, a roar of a lion, a drop of a beat...

Then, everyone goes CRAZY.

The “Harlem Shake” is the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 for the second week in a row, a top 10 iTunes download and the meme of the moment. Millions are watching variations on the “Harlem Shake” video theme in which the dance starts with one person thrusting their pelvis or dancing solo for 15 seconds, while the people in the background ignore them. Then when the beat drops, a group joins in bizarre, repetitive movements. The whole dance lasts around 30 seconds.

While this latest trend is built around the “Harlem Shake", it has scant ties with the New York neighborhood, and very little in common with the original dance that shares its name.

So just how did the phenomenon begin? It starts with a dancer in Harlem, a producer from Philadelphia and ends with you.

When Harry Rodrigues, a 23-year-old producer and DJ professionally known as Baauer, released a song called “Harlem Shake” last spring, he had only briefly lived in Harlem.  He told the Daily Beast that the idea for the title of the song came from Philadelphia rapper Plastic Little’s “Miller Time".

“A friend had shown me that track where he says, then do the Harlem shake, and it just got stuck in my head for a while, so I used it,” he said in the Beast's exclusive interview.

On February 2, 2013, comedian “Filthy Frank” on YouTube uploaded a video featuring people dressed in costumes doing jerk type movements to Baauer’s track. Then, TheSunnyCoastSkate, a group of young men from Australia, uploaded a video that is credited with shaping the format.

The University of Georgia men’s swim and dive team has done a version underwater.

The anchors of the "Today" show got in on the action with their 'shake'.

Even the English National Ballet has a Harlem shake video.

Watch: Miami Heat do the Harlem shake

But what does it have to do with Harlem?

To hear Harlem tell it, very little.

“How can I even think...they were trying to mimic the Harlem shake?" said Erika Ewing, a Harlem based actor. "Or is this their interpretation, parody and commentary on who we are as a culture and people?”

Filmmaker Chris McGuire went to Harlem to hear the reaction of Harlemites:

Some thought it was disrespectful; others were offended.

But there is one famous, former Harlem resident who supports the craze.

"I do want people to get educated on the real Harlem shake, it's something that's an art form, but anything that's branding Harlem, my hometown, I'm all for it," Sean "P. Diddy" Combs told MTV News.

The original shoulder-popping dance dates back to the early 1980s, and Albert Leopold Boyce, known as "Al B," is credited with doing the dance at the Entertainer's Basketball Classic at Rucker Park in Harlem. He died in 2006. His mother, Sandra Boyce,  told DNAInfo.com that the dance was inspired in part by her.

"This new thing is not the Harlem shake. When Al was dancing, we told him to try and put a patent on it," she told the website.

The dance evolved and adapted in New York, picked up by the Crazy Boys dance crew, and others according to the New York Times.

It was later popularized by rappers G. Dep and P Diddy in the song “Let’s Get It” in 2001.

Here is a tutorial on how to do the original Harlem shake:

There is another Harlem connection to Baauer's "Harlem Shake." Azealia Banks, a popular young rapper from Harlem, was involved in a Twitter feud with Baauer after he had her version of the song  pulled from a sound sharing service.

Banks later released her video, but the incident revealed what Baauer does know about Harlem shake: how to monetize it.


It is too early to tell how much Baauer, who is currently on tour in Europe, and on the cover of Billboard magazine, will make from the sales of the song. When Billboard changed the calculations for its Top 100 list to include YouTube views, it paved the way for the viral video to not just dominate on You Tube, but, in a first, shoot to the top of the Billboard charts.

And despite the dispute over its origins, there is one thing many increasingly agree on.

The new Harlem shake is one meme that may be nearing its end.

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Greyflan

    Maybe its Meth withdrawl...Next time dont try your thinly veiled racial humor. Dont throw stones when you live in a glass house

    March 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sam

    “How can I even think...they were trying to mimic the Harlem shake?" said Erika Ewing, a Harlem based actor. "Or is this their interpretation, parody and commentary on who we are as a culture and people?”

    I wish it was physically painful to miss a point by so much; then maybe people would stop saying things this ridiculous.

    March 1, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • NahBro

      Seriously man, I facepalmed so hard when I read that. You couldn't have said it any better.

      March 1, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Nino Brown

    I started the Harlem Shake, stop riding me.

    March 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. GH

    The Harlem Shake has been around for at least 10 years. In 2003 there was a Mitsubishi commercial featuring a woman in the passenger seat of an Eclipse doing a dance to Dirty Vegas' "Days Go By." Allegedly, she was doing the Harlem Shake, or a form thereof. A co-worker at that time described the dance to me as looking "like somebody on crack." I've never seen the actual dance so I don't know what it looks like, but the way it's depicted in these YouTube videos, it just looks like mostly white people having walking seizures. Clearly this nonsense has nothing to do with Harlem - and fries are too good to come with THIS shake.

    March 1, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      I remember the Harlem Shake from the late 90's. Trust me, this is not the "Harlem Shake"

      March 1, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Annie

    You need to follow up this story about the students at School of the Ozarks who did a video, posted it, and were reprimanded by their school and the video taken down by administrators.

    March 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. American

    This Obama generation continues to degenerate.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      Hmm, sounds like every other previous generation. Oh the horrors!

      March 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • GAW

      It was inevitable. Someone was going to blame it on Obama.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
      • JLewis

        Nah, this is all Bush's fault !.

        March 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Johnson

    Just another fad that the sheep are climbing over one another to be a part of. Two months from now, most of them will be embaressed they even participated. Dumb.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • yea

      Embarassed*.... and you keep thinking you arent one of those sheep you speak of..im sure you are way different than everyone else and much smarter too...The irony is overwhelming in your comment

      March 1, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Buster MuffinHaffe

    With the Terrorist! (one of the only lyrics in the song)

    March 1, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. emma

    By the time frat boys and middle-aged whites are at it, you KNOW it's over.
    But I don't think ti is meant to be disrespectful simply because most of these people had likely never heard of the Harlem shake before this song and did not realize it was an established dance move. You cannot really parody or ridicule waht you know nothing about.
    What it is is silly: lots of people who can't dance trying to look cool...or something.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      I don't think "cool" comes into this. Goofy perhaps. Its funny to watch and probably fun to create. That's it. Its not some sort of social commentary. Anything on the internet is now open to be copied, mashed, parodied and become the next big viral flash in the pan.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Harlem

    this crap is disrespectful. everything a minority creates, the world tries to take credit for and it loses its legacy. I am surprised with Diddy, or maybe not, since depending on how he responds affects his reputation and brand.
    The original harlem shake will always be apart of the history of hiphop, new york, and especially harlem.
    BTW GDeP and Diddys video wasnt the first to show the harlem shake, Eve's video whos that girl was! GDeps video just got more recognition cuz a little girl was doing it. Lets not forget Fabolous's video.

    March 1, 2013 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      Seems to me that most people are aware of the roots of Rock and Roll and Jazz, etc., etc.
      Frankly, at the end of all this silliness there will probably be tens of thousands of people who will find out about the real Harlem Shuffle that might never of heard of it otherwise. No one will confuse the two. This current little fad will fade and be remembered as a blip in the viral flood, yet the Harlem Shuffle will continue on....

      March 1, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • 95 South

      Harlem...Thank you, Thank you for giving people the history lesson they needed. People don't know the history of the "harlem shake". I was exposed to the "harlem shake" in 2001.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      We must be from the same generation because most of these people have no idea what they are talking about.

      March 1, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • sam

      Stop trying to give it more weight than it deserves. Get over yourself while you're at it.

      March 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • texastea

      Thank You Jesus and Thank You Harlem for putting the truth out there. The "harlem shake" they are doing now in all of these you tube videos is a rhythm-less disgrace and insult to Harlem and the history and legacy of authentic hip-hop.

      March 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |